Marks

It took me by surprise when I saw it.

It was almost two years ago. I was getting ready for work and trying to button my jeans, to no avail. I leaned over to try and somehow magic some more fabric into the thighs and there it was. A little stripe, faint as crayon on the white of my belly. My first stretch mark.

I cried right then and there in the bathroom. Not out of sadness, but of sheer joy and relief. This baby was growing enough that no matter what happened, I could point to this tangible proof that it existed. It wrote the first line in a story of hope.

Now, I can look at myself in the mirror and see all the places where nine short months marked me forever. My body is written all over in silver and white and seashell pink. It’s a map of joy, of pain, of the kind of love that threatens each day to break my whole self open.

Motherhood has challenged me in so many ways. In those early days of post-partum depression, I sometimes wondered if I’d made a mistake. I pressed tearful kisses and apologies to her tiny face and priced plane tickets in the middle of the night. Even now that time has mercifully blurred that period into something like the dim memory of a nightmare, I still sometimes cannot shake the feeling that I am letting her down. Doing my best falls far short of what she deserves.

There was one awful night that I had to put her in the crib to wail because, for the briefest flash, I understood all those warnings to walk away before you did something you would regret. I have never been so terrified before or since. As I sobbed outside her room door, I called my mother and asked how she did it. How was she so much better at this than I was?

The answer to that, she said, was that she wasn’t. Not at first. She had nights just like mine where she sobbed along with me. I didn’t remember them. But she did.

We are so hard on ourselves. We see all our mistakes, all the things we should have done instead, all the ways in which we could have been better. Every mother in the world has ten stories she can tell you about how she messed up, and at least one that she will never talk about because it’s too painful. These children, though? They’re okay. They’re growing and thriving and learning. They’re creating art. They’re inventing things. They’re putting out fires and helping each other in times of need. They love us. We must be doing something right.

My mother told me once that mothers are born with their children, but it’s so far beyond the delivery room. It swells up in the silence of waiting for the ultrasound tech. It’s drawn tight as a bowstring in a social worker’s office. It bursts forth the minute you lay eyes on the person you’ve waited for for months or years or just this side of forever. What she meant was that you grow and learn with your child each and every day you’re with them. You may never have held them in your body or in your arms, but once you have held them in your heart, you are not the same person you were before. The real stretch marks cannot be seen.

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone.

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